Lay membership of the Committee on Standards and Privileges

Memorandum submitted by Chris Mullin,

former Member of Parliament (P 86, 2010-11)

Lay membership of the Committee on Standards & Privileges

1. I was the MP for Sunderland South from 1987-2010 and a member of the Committee on Standards and Privileges between 2006-2010, a period which included the publication of Members’ expenses and the resulting fall out.

2. Although our reports were based on findings of fact by an independent commissioner and although the committee took a generally robust view of breaches of rules, we were frequently criticised for being unduly lenient towards colleagues. Fairly or unfairly-the point was often made that Members sitting in judgement on colleagues could not be considered impartial.

3. In my view much of the criticism was unfair and often based on a misunderstanding, wilful or otherwise. There is, however, an issue of perception that, in the light of recent events, needs urgently to be addressed. It has to be recognised that the days are over when professions – whether they be lawyers, doctors, policemen or even journalists – can be entirely self-regulating and hope to retain the respect of the public.

4. There are two basic alternatives. Either responsibility for dealing with complaints against Members should be taken entirely out of the hands of Parliament and handed either to an ombudsman or a committee of non-members with perhaps a token parliamentary representation. Or the existing committee should be opened up to include lay members as is already the case on the General Medical Council and the Press Complaints Commission (which has majority of lay members).

5. I do not believe there is a case for removing the complaints process entirely outside of parliament. The appointment of an independent commissioner, responsible for determining issues of fact, is already a considerable safeguard. I do, however, believe that the time has come to add lay members to the committee.

6. I would suggest no more than three at this stage. The appointments process should be by advertisement and entirely transparent-anything that looked like an Establishment ‘fix’ would only inflict further damage on the reputation of Parliament. Consideration should perhaps also be given to designating that the chairmanship should always be held by a lay member.

7. As to whether non-Members should be permitted membership of a select committee, this is an issue for finer minds than mine. Given the will, Parliament can presumably amend its standing orders in any way it sees fit. I would only say that should this problem prove insurmountable, the only alternative would be to remove select committee status from the committee and to create either an ombudsman or a committee of laypersons on which Parliament is represented. I do not favour this, but that is what it may come to unless a sensible compromise can be reached.

February 2011